What do the cities Jerusalem and Sarajevo have in common?

It’s not surprising if you first think of the countless conflicts which have torn these cities apart.

That’s why recent Masters graduates from the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo, Lejla Odobasic and Liana Bresler teamed up and redesigned certain aspects of their home cities where people can come together regardless of their religions beliefs.

Their exhibition of the sister cities “Jerusalem/Sarajevo: in between cities” first opened at the Riverside Galleries in Cambridge, Ontario in November of last year.  This year it also opened at Gazi Husrev-Beg Medresa in Sarajevo, Bosnia at the end of May and then at Bejahad in Opatija, Croatia at the end of August.  An abridged version was also displayed in February of this year at London’s Drawer gallery as part of a show put forth by openDemocracy entitled “Architecture and War.”

Odobasic for her Master’s thesis project on Sarajevo, redesigned the symbolic Vijećnica- Bosnia’s national library, which was shelled heavily during the Bosnian war. Only ten per cent of its contents managed to survive. She explains for us the reasoning behind her architectural decisions, which is further detailed in her paper entitled “Across the River: A Library Reflected.” (Photos posted here are from the mentioned paper).

 Why did you pick Vijecnica’s architecture in particular to redesign?

 In the aftermath of the controversial 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement Bosnia and Herzegovina has been fragmented into two political spheres – that of Repbulica Sprka and the Federation of Croats and Bosniaks. Bosnia’s demographic structure has consequently evolved into highly consolidated territories, most of which have become 90% homogenized according to ethnic and religious orientations.  Moreover, political and religious spheres have become fused and physically manifest themselves in the architecture of religious institutions, which have in turn become territorial markings and substitutes for national frontiers.

Sarajevo, 1900

Bosnia’s fragmentation has occurred not only on a geographical level – it has also invaded cultural, economic and political spheres.  In an attempt to address this issue of fragmentation, a different type of architecture needs to emerge, one that would function as a crucible for propagating new ways of thinking and to serve as a platform that would allow for a new socio-political form to emerge.  This new type of architecture would need to address a common past and it would need to emerge out of a secular public institution, one that would lend itself to all ethnic groups. Given the symbolic role of a National Library as the seat of collective memory and symbol of common identity, this project is an attempt to re-conceptuale the Bosnian National Library.

The history of the National Library (Vijećnica)is intrinsically linked with that of the

Vijecnica in the late 19th century

history of the country itself.  The building was constructed in Sarajevo at the foot of River Miljacka, by the Austro Hungarian powers in 1894.  It was a means of asserting political power over a country that had been under the Ottoman Empire for 500 years prior. In an attempt to make a smooth transition between the two colonizing powers, the Austrians implemented an Islamic style of architecture.  They borrowed from Moorish Alhambra for inspiration neglecting the Bosnian Ottoman style.   The new pseudo-Moorish building was not well received as it stood largely out of scale compacted to its Ottoman city center, refusing an engagement but rather turning

The grand staircase’s Islamic architecture, 1984.

its back onto it and facing the river.  Its days as City Hall were short lived.  In 1914 on a state visit to Sarajevo, while making his way from Vijećnica a to the Parliament building, archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated thus marking the beginning of the WWI and the collapse of the Hapsburg Power.

Between the two world wars, the building’s function and ownership (much like that of the country) remained ambiguous and shifting, until 1945 when the socialists came to power. During the Socialist era, the city expanded 5 times its previous size, following the example of other Socialist cities in the quest of social equality, brotherhood and unity.  In such a political context, Vijećnica became an eye sore, a reminder of the oppressive powers of the past, so it became important for the socialists to shift its function from a place of foreign oppression to that of propagation of knowledge.  Thus the old city hall became the new National Library.  As a library, the building rendered itself much more porous to the city and its citizens.  In fact, during the 50 years of Socialist rule, it became a much loved symbol of the city, for in its layered history Vijećnicaalso reflected the

Main atrium of the Vijecnica. (Left photo: 1996, right photo: 1993)

layered history of multicultural Sarajevo.

At the beginning of the war in 1992 between Serbia and Bosnia, Vijećnica became one of the primary targets.  It burnt for two days in August of 1992. Only 10% of the library’s contents were saved. According to the witness, for days after, gray ‘snow’, charred books, fluttered through the entire neighborhood.  The cultural loss as a result of the destruction of Vijećnica still resonated in Bosnian society today.  Initially after the war, reconstruction of Vijećnica became deemed symbolic of recantation of the country itself.  Foreign investment and international attention allowed for initial structural reconstruction. Over the years, however, complicated religious infected politics, started to  pose the question of the ownership of the National Library.  After all it has become very unclear to which group Bosnia belongs.  Furthermore which Bosnia is the library to represent?  In the mean time the library collection was moved ‘temporarily’ to a new location inadequate for a library of its magnitude and symbolic meaning.

Exterior perspective

What ideas influenced you to design Vijecnica in this specific structure?

 As a political statement the conceptual new National Library is proposed to sit across the river, thus not only will it expand the pedestrian zone of the old city center Bašćaršijaonto the other shore, but it will also symbolically become a reflection of the old library and the unity it used to stand for. In Bosnia rivers are often perceived as the life forces as they often gave rise to many Bosnian cities.   Paradoxically they are also geographical dividers, they mark the territorial boundaries between Bosnia and its neighbours, in times of war great massacres occur along them.  Symbolically, rivers have the power to offer absolution as well, whether through perceived holiness or by offering a chance to change one’s vantage point; a chance to cross over to the other side. It is upon this notion of crossing over to the other side, of changing one’s vantage point, of consciously choosing to cross the bridge that the project for a new Bosnian National Library rests.  The new site is currently owned by the city and houses a park and a make shift parking lot.

Site plan: the Vijecnica extends across the river to the other side occupying a vacant parking lot.

After having gone through numerous design exploration it became clear that the new library cannot be based on a singular prescribed idea, but rather on a series of sectional and horizontal relationships that respond to the river, the old library, the existing urban fabric and the surrounding paths.  By establishing a new Riverwalk that will simultaneously extend the pedestrian paths and will join itself to the river-walks that are already in place, the city will be invited in towards the library, and the building itself will project out towards the city. The building will be placed across the river while its form will trace the river’s contours.  In this way the building will assert the cultural and active role of the new library, while simultaneously preserving Vijećnica’s former function and significance and opposing its static monumentality.  The building’s articulation could be described through the three main conceptual elements: the spine, the heart, and the stacks.

Building perspective

The spine traces the river’s movement. In addition to housing support services, it plays an important role in establishing a continuous pedestrian zone at the ground level.  Through its progression, the spine’s relationship with the river changes widening and narrowing to accommodate program and paths along, above and through it.  In addition to the support it provides in making all the library’s elements possible, the spine works principally to invite the city in, which in turn leads it to the heart of the library.

The central space of the building, where all the axes converge, drawing the city in, is the heart of the library itself. The heart is the social centre, entrance and gateway to all the other programs.  It is the main activity center that houses the main reference desk, computer stations, magazines and newspapers, music archives, a children’s collection, a variety of lounge spaces, and lastly, at the very top, a reading room. Notably, the heart’s open central public space with a stepped forecourt mirrors that of Vijećnica, so as to bring attention to the old and the new reading rooms, calling to each other over the river. Physically, the journey through the heart is that of ascent. The program is arranged in a series of hanging platforms, each bearing a visual relationship to either the stacks, the city, Vijećnica or back onto itself. The heart is the main shared space of the building, which gives way to interaction and dialogue.

Is there a special reason why you decided to have stacks beneath ground level?

The Stacks Section

 Contrary in nature to the heart, the stacks act as the underbelly of the library, sunken into the ground by the weight of the books they house. Nested in the deepest layer of the stacks is the library’s most valuable asset – the special collection. This collection rests, consoled by the depths of the earth, indifferent to the outside elements. The stacks are delineated by a cut in the ground, which allows for light but no view to or from the outside.  Burying the books is allowing for a form of mourning and is a commemoration of that what has been lost.  Supported by the weight of the books, above-ground rests a public plaza, a open civic space that symbolizes a new beginning. The journey through the stacks from the heart to the special collection is one of descent. Arrival at the special collection signifies the end of the descent.

 How does your vision of the Vijecnica connect with multiculturalism in Sarajevo?

 The dichotomy of ascending/descending, hanging/burying, light/dark speaks of the possibilities of multiple and seemingly contradicting conditions to exist simultaneously and enrich one another. This project is an attempt at addressing the principle concern of portraying Bosnian culture in its entirety, one that is comprised of multiple ethnic and religious contributions. The aim is to preserve or at least acknowledge the history of the country’s heterogeneity by reflecting what Vijećnica and the city itself contained not so long ago. In the absence of such an affirmation, Bosnian culture is being further disintegrated on the basis of religious affiliation. Furthermore, this project recognizes the impossibility of an “answer” that can reconcile, overcome the losses or dismiss the suffering of war.  It does, however, speak of the possible affirmative role that architecture and knowledge could play, through the engagement of collective shared space, in creating a possibility of an overlap.

Spine Sections

 How satisfied have you been with its reception? 

 I was pleasantly surprised by the comments and reactions I got in Sarajevo in regards to this exhibition.  There was genuine excitement about the notion of a new library and in particular about the location and the organization I proposed.  I have to admit, I was a bit nervous presenting the work there to people who live their daily realities in that city.  They proved to be a great audience, many engaging conversation sparked as a result.

 Any plans for the future?

My passions overlap architecture with politics in contested spaces.  Over the summer I spent a month in the West Bank working on a project that focused on the Palestinian Parliament building with DAAR which was lead by Eyal Wizeman.  For now, I am not sure weather I will continue pursuing these passions through a PhD or independent work.

Describe Sarajevo in three words.

Merak, raja i nostalgia.

Vijecnica in the middle of renovations. August, 2011.


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